Telling a new partner, you have a mental health issue can feel like a big deal.
You might worry that what you have to tell them is going to put them off you. You might be anxious that the discussion will go wrong — that you’ll be hurt, or they won’t respond supportively. Or you might feel confused or hesitant about whether it’s necessary to disclose this kind of thing at all — you may feel it’s not a good idea to label yourself in this way.
While it can be a good idea to discuss this sort of issue at some point in your relationship, it’s not something you should put too much pressure on yourself to do. This is the kind of topic you only need to discuss when you’re properly ready: when you feel you’ve got a good idea of what you have to say about your mental health, and you feel comfortable enough around your new partner to have this kind of conversation. This should be at a point when you feel it might be beneficial and necessary to tell your partner.
We all have mental health — regardless of whether we describe ourselves as having a ‘problem’ or not. It’s important not to stigmatise yourself, or to think of your mental health as a potential block from having successful relationships.
How can I talk to my partner about mental health issues?
The only reason you might want to talk about your mental health before you get too far into a new relationship is if you think it might present challenges to how effectively you and your new partner are able to understand each other. One potential risk with mental health issues is that they can cause miscommunication between partners — one person may interpret symptoms as problems in the relationship itself and may not know how to react. This isn’t an impossible obstacle by any means — but it is something that can create room for misunderstanding.
If you do think it would be useful to head off this kind of problem, then you can talk about mental health issues in the same way you might have any other conversation in your relationship: by finding a good time, place, and having a proper, non-confrontational chat.
It can be a good idea to talk about this kind of stuff when you’re out and about, doing something relaxing. That might be while you’re going for a walk, or during a drive. Sometimes, having some other activity can make the conversation feel a little less intense.
It’s not usually a good idea to try to talk about important things when you’ve had a few drinks, or if you’re feeling emotional. This can make it hard to say what you have to say without it getting confused, or even coming across as an attack.
In terms of explaining things, it’s usually a good idea to keep things simple. All you have to do is explain, as calmly and simply as you can, what you understand to be the mental health issues you’re dealing with, and how that might affect your relationship at times.
It can be useful to be specific: ‘sometimes, I might not feel very talkative. That’s not because I’m angry at you — it’s just something I feel sometimes and can’t always control.’ It can also be useful to be specific about the things they could do — or not do — to help: ‘The best thing to do when I’m feeling that way is to give me a bit of space. I won’t feel abandoned — I’ll appreciate you doing it’, or ‘The best thing when I feel like that is just to listen to me and help me feel understood. I don’t really like it when people suggest lots of solutions — it’s more the listening that helps.’ Going over things in this kind of detail can help you to be nice and clear.
If you’re worried that bringing up your mental health problems means they’ll be defining you — well, that’s something you can talk about too. By allowing your partner to understand these issues in more detail — when they come up, when they don’t come up, how they started to come about — you can help them to understand them in perspective, that they’re a part of who you are but they aren’t who you are.
It can also be worth clarifying — perhaps to yourself as well as your partner — that this isn’t about them being responsible for your mental health or being expected to fix it. It’s about knowing how it might sometimes present challenges to the relationship, and how you might work together to address these challenges.
Beginning to help each other
One thing that might happen with this kind of conversation is you may find that your partner has experienced lots of the same things as you: ‘I know! I feel like that sometimes too!’, or they may have experienced this kind of thing in previous relationships, or through family members. And while your mental health issues will obviously differ in certain ways, this may be a relief and a pleasant surprise — you may find your partner is able to support you in ways you weren’t anticipating.
Or it might be that they don’t have much experience of this kind of thing, and need a bit of help before they understand. That’s ok too. It can be useful to try to be patient with your partner and give them the time to really get their head around what they’re saying. What might sound like clumsy or slightly awkward responses aren’t usually meant badly — they’re probably just your partner doing their best to see things from your perspective.
This is the kind of topic that can be useful to touch base about from time to time. You may find it’s useful to revisit things, especially if you think you’re still not fully understanding each other, or if any new developments mean it might be good to go over things. Although this might sound like a bit of a chore, it does get easier. In fact, if you and your partner can develop a common language for this topic and really get to know each other and how each other is thinking — you may find that discussing mental health can be an opportunity to make your relationship stronger.
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